Review: Who Gets To Be Smart by Bri Lee

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

It was my first week as a bookseller and I was shrink-wrapping DVDs when one of my colleagues quipped, “Your parents’ private school money at work, huh? Did they get what they paid for?”

It was a joke, a bit of careless banter, and I laughed along. But those words penetrated, and they’ve ricocheted around my brain ever since. Whatever my achievements as a bookseller, however you gauge my ‘success,’ a chunk of my brain wrestles with the fact my parents spent thousands of dollars on my education, and I turned to a career in retail. 

Did I fail them? Did I fail myself? Did I have the potential for more? And what does ‘more’ even mean, when I derive such immense satisfaction (and an award!) from bookselling?  

It’s hard, sometimes, not to feel a degree of intellectual inadequacy around old classmates during sporadic catch-ups. The lizard part of my brain attaches intelligence to identity, which is itself connected to one’s vocation, and the size of their paycheck. This thinking is flawed, but it pervades. It’s also loathsomely entitled.  And besides, whose “omnipresent ledger of legitimacy” am I comparing myself to?

So — it’s fair to say “Who Gets To Be Smart” got me thinking. 

I’m a huge admirer of Bri Lee’s writing, and her activism. I find her work thought-provoking and confronting. She forces me to examine the world around me, and my place in it. It’s often discomforting. 

In “Who Gets To Be Smart” Lee eloquently examines the inequities and systemic deficiencies ingrained in Western education systems, and meditates on the different ways to be smart. She scrutinizes concepts I was previously unfamiliar with, including kyriarchy, and concludes that ‘our most moneyed and powerful educational institutions — from primary through to tertiary — can only maintain their power by practising exclusion and discrimination.’

I imagine some scholars might desire an even deeper excavation of privilege, knowledge and power. But I appreciated the book’s accessibility and its relative brevity. Lee refers to a smorgasbord of existing sources and research, but things never get too textbook. In fact, it resonates because of its incisiveness; it’s a clear-eyed assessment of how things are, which will prompt further discussion, and hopefully — eventually — change.

ISBN: 9781760879808
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 304
Published: 1st June 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

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